Opinion: Following Leinster’s lead easier said than done for South African teams

·5-min read
 Credit: PA Images
Credit: PA Images

Squad depth will be the priority for South African teams hoping to succeed in both the Champions Cup and URC from 2022/23 onwards, writes Jon Cardinelli.

As things stand, Leinster are well placed to succeed in both of the major European tournaments.

Thanks to the efforts of their second and third-stringers on a challenging tour to South Africa, they’ve done enough to clinch top spot in the United Rugby Championship with a game to spare.

Meanwhile, their best players have enjoyed two weeks to train and prepare for the all-important Champions Cup quarter-final against Leicester Tigers.

Head coach Leo Cullen broached the subject of player management on Saturday night. When I asked him if, all things considered, the tour to South Africa could be viewed as a success, he replied in the affirmative.

Leinster won a penalty after the final hooter at Cape Town Stadium. Instead of pushing for a converted try and a draw, they kicked the ball dead and settled for a losing bonus-point.

Some suggested that the decision to kick to touch – as well as the decision to cotton-wool the senior players for the tour – highlighted a lack of ambition.

And yet, when you look at where Leinster are in the URC standings, and when you consider how a fresh, full-strength side might perform against Leicester this weekend, you have to laud the decisions taken by the management.

In awe of Leinster

South African rugby is in awe of Leinster and what the province has achieved in Europe. Inevitably, a number of comparisons have been made between the Irish giants and the local franchises over the past few weeks.

In spite of the wins by the Sharks and the Stormers, South African rugby has a long way to go before its better teams are in a position to replicate Leinster’s long-term success.

The Bulls, Sharks and Stormers have realised their pre-season goals by qualifying for the 2022/23 Champions Cup. From next season, these franchises will manage their resources with the Champions Cup and the URC in mind. The Lions will be similarly stretched when they compete in the European Challenge Cup and the URC.

This is new territory for South African rugby. For a long time, top coaches and players had the luxury of focusing on one major competition at a time.

Since the South Africa teams joined the URC in 2021, there’s been an overlap between the premier tournament – the URC has replaced Super Rugby in this regard – and the Currie Cup for the first time. In a sense, it’s given the head coaches an idea about what to expect in terms of player management from 2022/23 onwards.

The demands of competing in the Champions Cup as well as the URC, of course, will be far greater. While Leinster clearly have the depth to cope with such challenges, South African teams do not.

Could a South African franchise send a “B” side overseas for a couple of matches – as Leinster did recently – and avoid a drubbing? Could the “B” side accumulate valuable log points for the URC cause, while the “A” team looks to advance the franchise’s Champions Cup campaign?

These are the questions that the respective DORs and head coaches must tackle in the coming months, because they are questions that will be asked on a regular basis over the course of a typical European season.

The Bulls, Sharks and Stormers ticked a big box by qualifying for the Champions Cup. One of these teams may even go on to lift the URC trophy next month.

But every success – or failure for that matter – in South Africa’s first season in Europe must be viewed in context.

The franchises’ resources will be under immense pressure when they compete in two major tournaments from 2022/23 onwards. And right now, a lot of people are wondering whether the squads are large enough, and whether all of the players in those squads are fit for purpose.

John Dobson broached this subject when addressing the media on Saturday night. The Stormers coach said that the South African squads will need to expand if they hope to cope with such challenges in future.

There will be injuries, and thus the need for reinforcements, over the course of a season that spans 10 months. There will be further setbacks when players are called up to the Springbok squad in the official Test windows.

Leinster’s recent decision to split their squad highlights a further challenge. There will be situations where coaches have to divide their resources in order to realise their goals across two different competitions.

Could South African teams succeed in this manner? Or would their lack of depth be exposed?

The Stormers clearly have the players to contend for the URC title, and to compete in the Champions Cup. Their second and third-stringers, however, have been exposed at Currie Cup level over the past few months.

Western Province are ranked sixth in the domestic tournament and look set to miss the play-offs. Can these players be expected to make the step up to the URC, or even the Champions Cup next season?

While the privately-owned Bulls and Sharks have recruited well in recent times, they may also lack the resources to succeed in the short term.

The Lions are in a rebuilding phase, and it may be some time yet before they are spoken about as contenders at any level. The Johannesburg-based side has failed to qualify for the URC play-offs, and look set to finish at the bottom of the Currie Cup log.

What’s more, the exodus of South African players to European and Japanese clubs continues. All of the franchises should expect to lose personnel in the coming years.

Few clubs in Europe warrant comparison to Leinster at present, and it’s premature to talk about the South African teams in the same breath.

Until they develop squads that are equipped for the challenge, the dream of emulating Leinster’s success will remain exactly that.

READ MORE: South African director of rugby Rassie Erasmus suggests a three-point plan to improve the game

The article Opinion: Following Leinster’s lead easier said than done for South African teams appeared first on Planetrugby.com.

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